In-house is often seen as nirvana, the state of perfect happiness, peace, and no billable time. At Momentum Search Partners, we often from law firm associates seeking this path begin monitoring opportunities as a 3rd & 4th year (sometime earlier!). It’s never too early to begin getting familiar with the needed skill set and other qualifications to make you more appealing to a General Counsel. Once you take this leap, there is typically no going back to law firm life. So, give serious consideration to whether it’s the right time leave your law firm career behind.
Overall, companies’ value relevant Biglaw firm training above added years of in-house training. Companies often look at their outside counsel for an up-and-coming associate that knows their business and may be a perfect hire and a known quantity. Most in-house opportunities will require previous in-house experience and value a combination of firm and in-house experience. You don’t want to pass up a good in-house opportunity just because it isn’t the perfect opportunity. It may be the next step in your career and not the final one.
Working as In-House Counsel
Often law firm associates believe working for a company will immediately create a better work-life-balance. In realty, you may work just as strongly within a corporation, just differently. In theory you are supporting just one client, however you might work with many “client” divisions and functions inside the corporation.
Novelty and variety derive from the assortment of legal issues and projects you may encounter — depending on the corporation’s size and its in-house legal crew. In-house lawyers often gain success by broadening their practice. As an example, an employment litigator might be tasked with commercial cases; an M&A attorney may be required to take on deals involving customers; and a patent lawyer might be asked to work other IP tasks.
Additionally, corporations carry their own unique pressures to increase revenue and boost profitability despite roadblocks from laws and regulation, compliance, competition, changes in technology and other outside forces. Biglaw associates accustomed to having a secretary, paralegal and other support staff will often find companies being much leaner in that department.
Keep in mind, it has historically been very hard to go back to a firm after going in-house. This is partly because you’re likely too senior for the majority of law firm positions. It will also hinge on how closely aligned your in-house experience is with the work you did/will do at the firm.
What You Should Know Before Moving to an In-house Position
Corporations can have a variety of organizational structures for the business and law department. Before you join, ask how the company is structured and where the law organization fits within that structure, as well as how your own position fits into the law organization. As an example, a company may be a conglomerate with different subsidiaries grouped under a single holding company.
Alternatively, it might be organized geographically or according to lines of business that are separate to differing degrees. Does the job report to the General Counsel or a business leader? Lawyers may have “dotted line “reporting to a business leader a “solid line” to the general counsel.
These relationships may be pertinent to such matters as: who evaluates your performance, who determines vital legal issues needing approval from a senior, how cross-functional projects are driven and managed, and your opportunities to move within other parts of the law organization to widen your experience and possibility for advancement.
Best Time to Consider Working in an In-house Legal Team
There’s no “best time” to make this move. However, it is beneficial to have a minimum of 3-5 years of law firm experience. As associates near their 5th year, they typically have firm drafting and negotiation skills that will be a huge asset to an in-house role. The key is to ensure you’ve gotten enough concrete legal training at the law firm to be effective as an in-house lawyer.
If you procrastinate on moving in-house, it can be difficult for a company to match your salary. Therefore, an associate must evaluate his/her comfort level with making such a move, understanding that people arrive at this point at different phases of their careers.
In-house vs Lateral Moves
As you begin exploring in-house jobs, bear in mind that it can occasionally take longer to move in-house vs moving lateraling from one firm to another. You should ideally start exploring opportunities while you’re still relatively content/comfortable where you are. Get a jump on interviewing early so that you get market exposure and can perfect your interview skills. If you find yourself on the fence – go to the interview anyway; Afterall you’re not required to take the job!
A few questions to ask yourself or your legal recruiter before making a move:
- Am I sure I don’t want a law firm career anymore?
- Does the role sound intriguing in a substantive sense?
- Is this job going to teach me any new skills? Will it aid my professional development?
- Is this a steppingstone and am I pigeonholing myself into an area of law I’m not passionate to just to get in-house?
- Is there an opportunity to advance within the organization?
- What background do the general counsel and other senior counsel in the legal department have? Were they all partners at law firms beforehand or is there an opportunity to rise all the way up within the organization?